Footballers' Lives with Stephen Baxter: I thought I was going to lose dad but he pulled through and I was proud to win title for my biggest fan
From his trophy-laden playing career to challenges faced as a manager, as well as worrying times in his personal life, Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter talks us through his own story
As our popular series returns for the new Danske Bank Premiership season, there was no more fitting way to begin than with the boss of the reigning Danske Bank Premiership champions.
Q. How did you get involved in football?
A. I played for Greenwood and Strandtown Primary School. It was an opportunity to play organised schools' football and I was picked for the Belfast Primary Schools' team a year early. Orangefield and Ashfield were my choices and Orangefield were the big schools' football team so I was only going there. Schools' football was everything back then. Gary Mills, Kenny Scott and myself were three schoolboy internationals in that squad aged 14. I played at Wembley and we were hugely successful, winning the Irish Schools' Cup. Football was all we lived for. The three of us went to Manchester United, both of those guys got contracts aged 16 but I wasn't invited back and went to Middlesbrough instead. Alan Kernaghan and I went over together and they offered me a professional contract which I turned down.
Q. Why did you turn down the Middlesbrough contract?
A. They were relegated that year and I was expecting a two-year professional contract. They only offered me a six-month contract because they were in financial trouble and I didn't think it was the right decision to take it. Glentoran and Jim Rodgers were bending my ear to come and play for them. I thought that was the better choice and Ronnie McFall put me into the first-team panel.
Q. Do you regret that Middlesbrough decision?
A. It's very easy to say that because your football career is your football career. If I had gone to Middlesbrough I wouldn't have met my wife Lydia and had my four children. At the time I thought it was the right decision. I was 16 and involved with the Glentoran squad in Europe so it was amazing. But Glentoran had a very strong team with players such as Gary Blackledge, Billy Caskey and the late Ron Manley. Billy Johnston came in as manager after Ronnie and I was let go. I signed for Ards aged 19 and had two successful seasons, leading to a big move to Linfield.
Q. You went on to win two league championships with both Linfield and Crusaders, among other silverware. Have you a favourite moment as a player?
A. The one that stands out is the first win here with Crusaders in 1995. Winning any championship is amazing but at Linfield you were part of a big squad and expected to win titles. I had six years at Linfield and scored over 100 goals, it was a great time but I moved on to Distillery for a season where we won the Gold Cup under Billy Hamilton. Then Crusaders manager Roy Walker paid a large fee to bring me here and he said: "If you come here and I get a centre-half here we'll win the league." I'm thinking, 'Seriously?' because Linfield and Glentoran were the dominant teams. But we won the first title in 1995 and it meant a lot to everyone at Crusaders because we hadn't done that in 19 years. I played a big part and Glenn Hunter and I scored the two goals at Ballymena on the day we won it. That was my career's stand-out moment. I scored five goals for Linfield at Omagh but that Crusaders title triumph was the day when the enormity of the achievement made it so special and memorable.
Q. You didn't win the Irish Cup as a player. Is that a disappointment?
A. Absolutely. I only played in the one final in 1992, Linfield lost 2-1 to Glenavon at The Oval with Gerard McMahon scoring one of their goals. It's a disappointment but that's football. In every season I played senior football for 19 years there were only two in which I didn't win a senior trophy so I expected to win something.
Q. Is there a different feeling winning as a manager, compared to playing?
A. They are two contrasting emotions. If you're playing you are involved and it requires concentration. As a footballer you are an individual in a team sport but you need to prepare right. As a manager I feel I'm responsible for everyone, from the players to the supporters to the board. When you get the job done there's an overwhelming sense of achievement and you take great personal pride in it. As a manager I feel like I'm delivering it for other people. It's two different feelings but both equally good.
Q. Some of our players have progressed to the professional game after playing in the Irish League. Crusaders' Gavin Whyte, who went to Oxford United this summer, is a recent example. What are your thoughts on the challenges our players face in pursuit of a professional career?
A. The rate of return is something like 87%. The footballing world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Youth football is now a big thing. When I was growing up it was schools' football and boys clubs. If an Irish League club came looking for a 16-year-old to go into their youth team it was a very big thing. A trial across the water was also massive. Now the clubs are happy to take players in big numbers and some of them have formed their own academies here. They are trying to find the one special one but if you look at the Premier League their players are more foreigners than home-based. It's great going to Liverpool or Manchester United but the success rate isn't high and I've experience of a lot of players coming back home disillusioned. These are talented players but you would be shocked at the psychological edge of it. Their dreams are over after two years. Huge amounts of players are let go and in those two years when they are playing boys football at clubs the players here are playing men's football in those two vital years. Returning players can come back behind the rest and that's the difficulty. Players I talk to will tell me, 'I'm looking to get back across the water' and I'm thinking, 'That sounds great but look at the failure rate. You've come back, your two years is up and another group two years younger than you are on the same cycle'. I think those formative years are crucial for players and I think the Irish League has become a very good platform for players to develop and showcase their skills. Gavin has a better chance of making the Oxford first team now he is 22 and his game has developed. Had he gone to England earlier he could have run into more obstacles.
Q. In 2005 the late Crusaders chairman Jim Semple asked you to become manager. Had you thoughts about coaching before then?
A. No. I retired from the game and was busy with work and my church. Football management was the furthest thing from my mind. Jim called me and said, 'We're in big trouble, can you help us for the last nine games?'. I can remember that call like it was yesterday and I told him I would walk over broken glass to help him and the club. Jeff Spiers was still playing and we scraped a few wins but we lost the play-off to Glenavon and were relegated. It was a grim night for everyone, the rain was lashing down and I substituted Jeff with about 10 minutes to go to get a forward on looking for a goal. Jeff went home straight away. He was about 38-years-old but he was my captain and I had developed a good rapport with him. Seeing the board members in tears gave rise to fears about the future but I jumped in the car and drove to Ballynure because I knew Jeff lived there. I knocked on doors until I found him. I told Jeff, 'You shouldn't end your football career like this, this is not how it should be'. He was going on holiday the next day and I urged him to think about it and not end his career on a moment like this. He was an old colleague of mine at Linfield too. Jim wanted me to stay on and I agreed if the players were up for it. Jeff came back and said he would give it a go. I wanted us to act like a senior team and be the most professional team in the Intermediate League. We will put our suits on and keep standards high. Jeff got back to the Premier League and played aged 40, an amazing servant to the club to this day. You need special people around you and I gave Jeff the reserve team job. Terry Moore was also great in making us a strong, sharp, fit team. We have always had strong Crusaders people working for us and the players recognise that.
Q. The club has overcome financial difficulties over the years. Did you ever fear for the club's future?
A. I said to Jim, 'You need to tell me your budget and don't lie to me'. To win the league we needed goalscorers and David Rainey was the really big signing. I thought if we lie about money, the club won't last. The club was around £700,000 in debt and the playing budget was minimal. It was a terrible budget but I said to the players, 'Here's where we are, if you don't want to be here, now's the time to leave. If you stay, we do this together'. We lost a right-back but the rest stayed, including Colin Coates and Chris Morrow. The taxman doesn't go away, there was always another bill and it took many years to deal with historic debt. One or two generous sponsors helped us but the budget didn't change. It was a tough time but there was progress on the pitch. Linfield were still thumping us but the focus was to stay on the right path. I joked we shopped at Lidl, not Marks & Spencer.
Q. It's changed now though, hasn't it?
A. Yes, but we earned the right to do it. I hear comments about Crusaders having money to do things but success gave us the right to do it. Winning titles came from foundations put down years earlier. Titles didn't come overnight. Nothing came easy, far from it. The money hasn't always come and it's not being thrown around in a crazy way. I came through tough times at this club and money will not be given out easily.
Q. Do you still consider David Rainey to be your best ever signing?
A. He was the best signing at that period but since he left we have strengthened the squad and there have been some wonderful purchases including Paul Heatley from Carrick Rangers and Billy Joe Burns from Linfield. Billy Joe was probably the biggest and best because he was a real catalyst for the team. Eamon Doherty was another incredible success, a brilliant player for us but it's important to remember we have grown some of our own including Jordan Owens, Declan Caddell and Colin Coates. There's probably been a dozen signings in recent years putting us in the position where we are now. People also like to compare the current team to the 1990s sides but they are different eras and styles. You can't tackle any more!
Q. Is there one defeat which has upset you more than most in your time as manager?
A. I don't tend to dwell too much on them. I often think it's best to congratulate the other team because that's how the game should be. I'm a bad loser and my wife says it's not a pleasant sight to see. One defeat that really hurt me was the Europa League game in Latvia last year when a goal in the 94th minute meant we lost on away goals to FK Liepaja. I don't think I ever felt as low. It was real despair because we had that game won. It was hard to take and I felt desperately sorry for everyone. We lost the game at Ballymena which put the 2017 title in Linfield's hands and it was an awful day but it was a 38-game campaign. Latvia was awful, that hurt me more than losing the league title!
Q. You've lost many Crusaders friends and colleagues including former players Walter McFarland, Arthur Brady, chairman Jim Semple, secretary Harry Davison, tea lady Madge Hunter and supporter Billy Whiteside. In those dark moments do you fully understand the term 'family club'?
A. When the Crusaders family suffer a death it is a bit unique in so much that everybody is connected together as it's a smaller bunch of people. We lost Billy Whiteside but also lost Whitey, a Crusaders legend - Tommy's uncle and Billy's brother. He was a character in our dressing room and when these people who you know closely die it really does bring home how close knit the club is. I've had the very great privilege and honour of saying a few words at funerals over the years and being around their families in those times. You then realise how much Crusaders meant to them. Wives and daughters knew what the club meant to their loved one and we are a family in that sense. We have lost big name people and one of the very big moments for me was the loss of Alain Emerson's wife Lindsay. Alain played for Glenavon and Loughgall, a talented left-sided player. He is a really good friend of mine and to go on that journey with him was very sad. The couple were only six months married when the news came back it was an inoperable brain tumour. We went through that next three months with him and every player went to the funeral. For me that was probably the toughest moment in my managerial career. We watched one of our own suffer. They were in their early 20s - Lindsay was 23 - with their lives ahead of them. That was a tough time, our chaplain Ken White helped everyone. They were dark moments and the players were shocked. The lovely thing is Alain is re-married with a family but at that time it was an incredibly tough moment but we stuck together and rallied. That's why the club is so special.
Q. It was also a huge shock when supporter Billy Whiteside passed away at the match in Scotland. Had you ever experienced anything like that before?
A. Never. It was personal to me because we travelled together. Billy showed me an old photograph and said, 'Who do you think that is there?' I said, 'I bet you that's you' and he said, 'That's me'. I said, 'You were a good looking lad' and it was all fun. The match was 10 minutes old when we knew there was a big problem and that was tough on Tommy and everyone involved. Tomorrow is not promised to us and you hope you have people around you who can circle around in times of need. We have a lot of those people here.
Q. Management can be intense, so how do you relax away from football?
A. I don't see enough of my family but hopefully that will change. Even Christmas Day we are preparing for Boxing Day, the preparation work is incredible. It's in our blood and it gets me up in the morning. The team is like my extended family and I want them to be in the best condition to play well. They can have family issues as well so you're buying into them as people as well as players. I like to get away to play golf with friends and spend time with my family. I've a young son Jack who is 16, three older girls Lindsay who lives in London, Rachel who comes to all the games and Hannah who has a little baby called Harry who is eight months old. Lydia wouldn't come to the games often but she follows every second of it on her phone. My brothers Glenn, Paul, older sister Kim and dad George are big supporters too and we all love it. The church where I worship is the most important part of my life too. As a footballer you are self-focused but as a manager I can see and understand more. My parents, Anne and George, sacrificed a lot to help me and my dad, who never missed the matches since I was 11, is my biggest fan. He hasn't been well over the last year but he loves the football.
Q. How is your dad doing?
A. He's doing rightly but he still has a long way to go. He has kidney dialysis problems. His kidneys don't function and he is now on full blood dialysis but it puts the heart under pressure. The heart wasn't going to survive so a triple bypass was required and they've the problem of marrying them together. We've nearly lost him three times within a year to various things. When you get a phone call to come to the hospital it's very tough. People don't see any of that. We played Ballymena United at Seaview on the Friday night before Christmas and I left the game and went straight to hospital because my dad was in intensive care at the Ulster Hospital. He got out of the Royal Victoria Hospital about six to eight weeks after his operation and the exciting talk was he'd be home for Christmas. He got out about a week and a half before Christmas but after being at home for three days he collapsed and was rushed back in. He was like a skeleton, he had lost so much weight. We were training on the Wednesday that week and I got a phone call from my mum saying the ambulance was there and could I come. He had to go to hospital and we had the game that Friday. I didn't think he would make it but he got through. That Christmas was tough with the football going on behind the scenes. It's been an incredibly tough year with dad but the joy was the baby being born. That's why we have good people here and Jeff carried a lot of the weight. We're still hoping that dad will make a full recovery. He's slowly making progress and walking again. He was in the Ulster Hospital for six months.
Q. I'm sure it made you even more proud when you won the title.
A. Yes, he followed the football from his radio in the Ulster Hospital. I was in there nearly every day, it was hard work. I didn't know if he would ever get out, he had to be trained to walk again and he can't walk far. He had the operation in October and it was successful but marrying the kidney function to the heart was the big problem. During the cold snap in January he contracted the flu virus in the Ulster Hospital and they feared he wouldn't survive the week. He got through it and we can now see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. He's 78 and been through a lot. Family is very important because they suffer with you. They know your private thoughts and I have a wonderful family.
Q. Management can be stressful and you were outspoken when the late Alan McDonald endured a difficult time at Glentoran. Do you worry about your own health?
A. Football is a game at the end of the day. We are passionate about it, but you should never lose sight of that. I now believe social media is a vicious world where people can easily offer their comments and views but be reluctant to come and say it to your face. From day one since I arrived at this club I've said to our fans be very careful what you say because you can't take it back. Players won't forgive you if you slag them off as badly as you do. The art of what I try to do is to encourage people. I will not accept poor standards and I demand the highest standards but encouragement is what makes people successful. If you encourage a child to do something they will do well at it. If you browbeat them they will never forgive you for it. Alan McDonald was like the rest of us, he was a human who bleeds. I don't buy the argument you can say what you want to managers. Our job is difficult enough without taking personal and vindictive abuse which oversteps the mark. I am very blessed at this club where we have an educated support. There's the odd comment but do they bother me, not at all. The fans understand us and our ethos. We never short-change them. I felt for Alan who I knew well. I spent some time with him when he was ill and I was annoyed about his passing. This is a game, it's not life and death. We must have respect for one another. I know the stresses and strains of all of this and I can relate to managers who have health issues.
Q. Your Christian faith is obviously very important. Does it get tested in the football environment?
A. Some of the communications I've had with referees can be heated but when things calm down I'm big enough to call referees and apologise if I got it wrong. But sometimes there's a feeling that Christian people shouldn't get annoyed about something or express an opinion - that's not the real world. Christianity is about a personal relationship with our creator. It's about walking in faith through the instructions of the Bible. There's a stereotype opinion of Christianity which is the opposite of what it's all about. My faith is the most important thing for me in life and I've been living that way since I was 19-years-old.
Date of birth: October 1, 1965.
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Glentoran, Ards, Linfield, Distillery, Glenavon, Crusaders, Bangor.